Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Take Five: An Interview With These United States

Photo by Sarah Law

These United States are an Americana act defined by their boisterous sound and energetic live show. The band’s tunes are as lively as they are wistful, as renegade as they are poetic, as rough around the edges as they are sensitive. Like The Lost Boys of indie music, these vagabond wanderers are a little bit country, a little bit rock n’ roll, exuding both a bad boy edginess and an endearing innocence. These United States straddle the line between trouble-making tendencies and old-fashioned Southern charm. There’s an untamable, almost dangerous air about Jesse Elliott, J. Tom Hnatow, and Justin Craig (the band’s core, who have played together for four years) yet they’re the kind of guys your mom would insist on inviting over for a home-cooked meal.

While the band’s previous album, 2010’s What Lasts, leaned toward a more somber, introspective sound, These United States’ forthcoming, self-titled release is louder, more rowdy, and packed with songs that would make the ideal addition to your summer playlist.

I spoke to frontman Jesse Elliott the morning after the band’s tour kick-off at Cause in Minneapolis, during which they debuted two new members, Aaron Latos and Anna Morsett.

I’ve noticed a few themes over and over again in your music: water, mortality, and maps. Could you speak to how they influence your songwriting?

Jesse Elliott: Interesting. I never thought about that. I suppose there are theories about dreams and psychology and how those things are connected. Water and death, how maps relate to life, and the fun stuff, the exploratory side of life. I like to write about the light and the dark being combined. Everyone in the band believes in being honest to the way we feel about the world and I think we are all equal parts optimists and pessimists.

It seems like you guys are perpetually on tour.

JE: Yeah. We started five years ago and since then, we’ve done around 900 shows. We were doing 200 shows a years and scaled back to work on this new album.

Is home a geographical place for you or is it a state of mind?

JE: I think it’s both. For me, I literally don’t have a home address. Home is New York and Denver and Toronto and everywhere in between. For three of my bandmates, Brooklyn is home and Tom’s home is in North Carolina, but we have many geographical homes. At first, I felt homeless, but now I feel like I have multiple homes. Right now, I’m at my sister’s place in Minneapolis. Chicago feels more and more like home, too, as does New Orleans. We have an extended geographical family and our metaphorical family is expanding, too.

Reading over your blog, it would appear you guys are a thinking man’s band. Not to say that other bands aren’t…

JE: Most musicians are pretty damn smart. Maybe people aren’t willing to admit to it or express that because a lot of music is about fun. And that’s great, but it goes so much deeper. I don’t think of us as all that different from other bands. We’re curious about bigger things. Tom is the most strictly literary of the band members. Justin is a serious reader. I have a writing background, but I wouldn’t pretend to be a voracious reader. I like the idea of collage; I’m more of the multimedia person in the band.

Have your bandmates ever vetoed a song lyric?

JE: Yeah, there have been those moments, for sure. I am just as open to that as Tom is open to me commenting on a pedal steel part or Justin on a guitar part. I have the good fortune of trusting their judgment. Every once in a while, one of the guys will say, “That kind of makes me cringe,” so I pull it back a bit.

This spring and summer, you’re touring with Trampled by Turtles, followed by a tour with Heartless Bastards. Does the testosterone ever get to be too much with that many men on the road for such a long time?

JE: It does. Luckily we have our new bandmate, Anna Morsett, who is a more powerful, smarter individual than all four of us guys combined. She will overpower us with her sheer smarts.

Has the name These United States ever been responsible for misperceptions about the band and what you guys stand for?

Yeah, it has. That’s part of the reason why I chose it. I liked that it was open to interpretation. We’ve been accused of belonging to the far left to the far right and everything in between, and I’m fine with it. I like the geographical and the cultural connotations. It’s representative of the big, crazy, freewheeling country we live in. I think it points out the pluralism of our country. How people interpret our name is usually based on love or hate; it’s also a good indicator of how those people view the world.

What is your favorite gas station snack?

JE: [Laughs] That’s an easy one. We all like crazy, spicy, wasabi party mix. We’ve come across so many variations of it, but most of them have sesame sticks and wasabi peas. We’re party mix people.

And what about a beverage?

JE: That’s trickier. The only one we would all agree on is coffee, because we need to stay awake sometimes and it provides a warm, comforting backdrop to look out the window to. Beyond that, we diverge into various forms of alcohol, fruit based beverages, and, once in a while, water.

These United States open for the very sold-out Trampled by Turtles show at First Avenue on April 11. Visit the band's website for a complete list of upcoming tour stops and look for their new album on June 12!

Tune into "Live From Studio 5!" every Wednesday from 10 PM to Midnight on KFAI radio for more must-see local and national acts!

- Erica Rivera

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